Category Archives: Beijing Scene

Early rejected works : An Open Letter to Beijing Starbucks

Backstory to “Early Rejected Works: An open Letter to Beijing Starbucks: In the Autumn of 2002 I returned to Beijing with the intention of carrying on with the mission I’d started in 1999 at Beijing Scene, namely becoming the Hunter Thompson of China’s expat writer scene. Beijing Scene had met a fairly dramatic end two years earlier, and the new game in town was a magazine called That’s Beijing (which would later expand to That’s Shanghai, That’s Guangzhou and That’s China, before itself meeting its own fairly dramatic end). Anyway, I wrote maybe a dozen articles for them, but I didn’t quite fit in with the editorial staff in the same way as I had with Beijing Scene, and eventually ditched Beijing altogether for warmer, less complicated parts of China.

But during the three or so months I was in Beijing, I churned out most of my articles at one of the first Starbucks in Beijing. I think there were three at the time, which was ironic as one of the stories Beijing Scene had done in 1999 was about how Starbucks had just opened its first branch in Beijing, and was going the put the independent coffee shops out of business. If I recall correctly, it was a cover story, the title was “You Will Be Assimilated”, and most of the people we interviewed eventually wound up working for Starbucks.

Anyway, I hung out at Starbucks because I was living semi-legally in a drab apartment block that was connected to what I guess was then Beijing’s central heating grid, which didn’t come on until Mid-November despite the fact that Beijing starts getting cold in September. So I hung out at Starbucks with my laptop for up to four hours a day, drinking their battery-acid coffee and listening to the two CDs they were officially permitted to play, over and over again.

Being a journalist, I quizzed the folks behind the counter and learned that the music selection had been mandated from the top, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that these two CDs were basically designed to create a relaxed, western vibe without accidently introducing listeners to any dangerous western philosophy. (Wouldn’t want the Rolling Stones “Street Fighting Man” to give the citizens any funny ideas now, would we?)

The two CDs were “Best of the Eagles” and “Simon and Garfunkles Greatest Hits”, which they played at about a five to one ratio. It eventually drove me nuts, so I wrote what I thought was a funny editorial for That’s Beijing with a bunch of double entendre based on Eagles and S&G songs. The editor, a frat boy type from Conneticut, thought otherwise. I suspect he thought I was a weirdo. Our editor-writer relationship didn’t last that long.

Anyway, I just found the essay on my mystriously long lost hard drive, and since “Bad Music at Starbucks” seems to be trending, I thought I’d put it up as both an example of bad music at Starbucks and also a snapshot of life in a Beijing that’s long gone.

Author’s Note: As with many of the long-lost hard drive articles, “An Open Letter to Beijing Starbucks” was slightly corrupted, and the first sentence has been turned into a mysterious mixture of nonsensical Chinese characters and religous symbols. I have left this gibberish intact, having no recollection of what compelled me to begin the article with a sentence ending in the words “unmarked by the cheery logo of a mermaid preparing to engage in auto-cunnilingus”


An Open Letter to Beijing Starbucks

आÀ䘀楍牣獯景⁴潗摲䐠捯浵湥unmarked by the cheery logo of a mermaid preparing to engage in auto-cunnilingus. While some – scruffy hippies and James Dean type uber-individuals, mostly – might disparage your borg-like saturation / assimilation tactics, our feeling is “why argue with success?” Bully for Starbucks!

However, there is one tiny thing that we at the magazine would like to bring up, a matter that threatens to work its way into our collective consciousness and disrupt the otherwise Peaceful, Easy Feeling that exists between us and Starbucks. We are, of course, referring to your, how can we put this, rigidly monotonous corporate musical policy. We all agree that the Eagles were a fine band, and far be it for any of us at the magazine to belittle their contribution to light, apolitical and “socially acceptable” rock and roll that helped western society heal from the jarring social rifts created during the 1960s.  Nonetheless, even Don Henley might be driven to violence after hearing Hotel California two dozen times during an eight-hour shift. After only a few hours listening to the same bland seventies rock songs played repeatedly, we can’t hide our crying eyes. We can only imagine what sort of psychic toll this might take on your counter staff in the long run.  

Likewise, Simon and Garfunkel were a fine folk duo, celebrated both for their harmonious crooning and their wistful take on the deeper existential questions which all much face. However, after hearing Feelin’ Groovy three times during one afternoon’s teatime, some of us have been known to curl up into fetal balls, whimpering “lai lai lai, lai lai lai lai” and cringing at imagined sounds of whip-cracks.  If only it were true that a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.  “Take it Easy! Take it Easy!” we tell ourselves, but still,  Starbuck’s slavish corporate devotion to musical tedium is breaking out hearts, and shaking our confidence daily.

We assume that whoever is in charge of Starbucks, Beijing is not a hard-headed man so enamored with life in the fast lane that he would ignore the pleas of long-time customers and continue a musical policy sure to make us lose our minds.  Of course, ultimately we have the option to simply avoid Starbucks, yet somehow we feel compelled to return. It is as if we are all just prisoners here, of our own device.  Rest assured that such a rigid  corporate musical policy will ultimately take it to the limit, putting us on the highway (to some other coffee shop, if we could only find one) and showing us the sign (that perhaps we should switch to snorting Ritalin).  

So how about some new tunes, Starbucks? C’mon baby…don’t say maybe”

Sincerely Yours,

Joshua Samuel Brown,

Beijing, 2002

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Early rejected works : An Open Letter to Beijing Starbucks
The Author, Beijing 2002

Cold War Cuisine

Artist: David Lee Ingersoll

My photographer is surrounded by waitresses wearing starch-pressed uniforms. They are grabbing his camera, repeating “no photos” in halting Mandarin. The editor and his girlfriend hang by the entrance, clearly regretting their decision to join the magazine’s newest writer on his first restaurant review.

An aura of fear hangs in the air. Our dog meat soup has yet to arrive.

Welcome to the Pyongyang BBQ, the only North Korean eatery in Beijing.

I attempt to sooth the desperate waitresses, telling them that we are fellow workers, comrades. Harsh stares penetrate the barbecue smoke from the neighboring table, and there is some quick chatter in a Korean dialect few Americans will ever hear. She shoots a glance that puts ice in my bowels.


It is both question and accusation.

I wrack my brain. What country would be least offensive to North Korean sensibilities?


Their moon-faces soften slightly. There is more chatter in the North Korean dialect.

“You may photograph the dishes,” one says. “No faces.”

We agree that strict anonymity will be maintained.

Our menu is produced, a black folder with numerous plastic sleeves holding hundreds of index cards on which are handwritten dish-names in Korean and Chinese. The Chinese characters are meaningless phonetic transliterations of the original Korean. There are neither pictures nor colorfully worded descriptions.

Such trivial details are for the bourgeois!

Our waitress hovers rigidly above our table, pencil impatiently tapping pad.

“Can you recommend some typical Korean dishes?” I ask.

She stiffens as if touched with a cattle prod, icy stare deepening.

“We are North Korean.” She corrects me before resuming her pad-tapping. We quickly order several dishes at random.

The first thing to arrive is the kimchi. I eagerly shove a chunk into my mouth, regretting it immediately.

“Is this your spiciest kimchi?” I ask, my face turning scarlet.

“Our second most spicy. We would not serve a foreigner our most spicy kimchi unless we wished them dead.”

These will be the kindest words she says all night.

More dishes arrive. My photographer is nowhere to be seen. I envision him hog-tied in the trunk of a car with diplomatic plates, racing towards the border.

Perhaps his insistence on photographing the North Korean opera blaring from the television was a bad move.

To hell with this restaurant. This review is over!

I get up as inconspicuously as possible, muttering something about needing the toilet and walk sideways like a crab towards the door, my eyes twitching from the smoke. I am about to bolt for freedom when I spot my photographer coming out of the kitchen.

“I was trying to chat up a prep chef, but he wouldn’t tell me anything.”

“What the hell did you expect? Shit, lower that camera before they crucify us. We have many, many dishes to get through.”

We return through the smoke to our table, blinded and choking as surely as if the bartender had detonated a tear gas grenade. My dining comrades are chatting, filtering the air through lit cigarettes.

I say something like “the meat…cough…is…cough…flavorful.”

They nod in agreement.

We are given a plate stacked high with tomato, onion and garlic, all of it raw. We cannot figure out how to cook it on our table without having it fall through the grill, and wind up shoveling it into our mouths uncooked. This turns out to be good practice for the next dish, small bowls filled with raw chopped beef. A raw egg has been cracked in each bowl.

I ask the waitress how it the dish is best enjoyed. She takes my bowl and mixes it until it becomes a glutinous meat paste.

“Eat,” she commands.

The oily mixture slides down my throat like a wad of meat-flavored phlegm. I surreptitiously slide the bowl across the table: best to save my appetite for the restaurant’s apparent specialty, the pot of dog meat soup that the waitress has just placed on our table. Our request for bowls are ignored, so we eat straight from the pot.

Dog meat is a dark pungent meat with a somewhat stringy texture. It is said to be a warming meat with yang-strengthening properties, equally good for cold winter days or long passion-filled nights. Try to ignore the theme to Lassie which will inevitably run through your head while you eat.

There is very little at the Pyongyang BBQ for the vegetarian to enjoy. The editor’s girlfriend refused to even touch her chopsticks. She fled from the table when the raw beef came out and did not return. We ordered a spicy cold noodle dish that never arrived. We got a small dish which we didn’t order, a plate of two kinds of glutinous cakes. I assumed that this was dessert, and ate a piece expecting it to be sweet. It tasted like sawdust and had the texture of hardening denture paste.

How does one explain the difference between excellent dog meat soup and dog meat soup that is merely mediocre? The Pyongyang BBQ restaurant calls for a different review metric entirely, and in this metric the restaurant earns high marks in all categories. Cuisine is clearly authentically North Korean and earns four stars. Ambiance hearkens back to China’s bygone days of constant paranoia, earning again four stars. And service is as good as you’d expect in Pyongyang, so four stars again.

Pyongyang BBQ is a restaurant that fulfills the needs of a worker’s state. It is not a good place to take a skittish first date. Do not harangue the wait-staff with petty questions. Keep your nationality to yourself. Avoid “Pyongyang Star,” the North Korean National Beer — it’s vile.

Return at reasonably spaced intervals. The Permanent Revolution is best enjoyed in small doses.

Cold War Cuisine ran originally in Beijing Scene Magazine, Summer 1999.

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